WASHINGTON Vegetable gardening may not be as frugal a strategy as you think. Ask William Alexander, who wrote "The $64 Tomato" (Algonquin Books, 2007, $13.95) after going overboard on his own garden.
Alexander did the math, and calculated that by the time he was done "investing" in soil additives, plants, water, tomato cages, raised beds and more, the cost of each tomato was $64.
But that won't stop most of us. During this recession, more people are gardening than have in many years. So what if they pay for the privilege? You could argue that it is a fun and healthy hobby and "saving" money is only an afterthought. Maybe so, but it's nice to save money in the garden, too.
None of this, by the way is revolutionary: Many of these tips have been around since Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden at the White House in 1943.
-- Compost. Even a little. Throwing table scraps (not meat or dairy) into a bin in the corner of your garden will yield rich soil additives, so you won't have to buy them at $4 a bag.
-- Focus on exotic foods. Don't waste your time and money growing basic tomatoes and peppers; they are on sale at the grocery and farmers' market right around the same time your crop comes in. Instead, choose unusual varieties that are always expensive: heirloom tomatoes, Italian peppers, white eggplant.
-- Grow herbs. They are probably the most cost-effective item you can put in your garden. Grow basil and coriander from seed; they grow like weeds in many climates. One packet, sprinkled into a planter, will yield enough little plants to keep your whole neighborhood in salsa and pesto for a year. Seriously. You can also use herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage for landscaping. In many climates they'll come back year after year, and look as pretty as the flowers that you can't eat. If you have a big space to fill and don't mind mint taking over your yard, plant mint. It will take over entire neighborhoods, something you can think about while you're making your own free tea and juleps.
-- Buy smaller plants. Little trees, shrubs and bushes adjust more easily to their new habitats, and they are WAY cheaper than big plants. It's not worth paying for the big tomato plants they often have at the home improvement centers. They are costly, and the little plants will catch up quickly once it's warm and sunny in your garden.
-- Sharecrop with your neighbor. Don't have space? Have too much space? Split the costs of one garden and let the garden enthusiast plant in the yard of the I-hate-to-garden neighbor. Split the crop fairly.
-- Get plants for free. Check Craig's list (www.craigslist.com), Freecycle (www.freecycle.org), and your local gardening club for trades and giveaways. Gardening enthusiasts are always dividing plants and not knowing what to do with extras. You can often get good sized bushes for free from landscapers, too: They are always digging out something their customers don't want so they can plant what they do. You can take the old plants off their hands.
-- Don't fall for the seed-starting kits. By the time you add in the peat pots, starting soil, sun lamps and more, you'll end up paying extra for each tomato. Wait until late in the planting season and buy plants at a discount through your garden center, hardware store, or at the local farmers' market, where growers are increasingly adding plants. If you've got the green thumb and want to start from seed, use egg cartons instead of spending money on pots.
-- Reuse water. Many communities will give away rain barrels for just a few dollars. You can divert your gutter to run into the rain barrel and then use rainwater to keep your plants hydrated. You won't save very much, but you'll save a little. And feel like a real old-world farmer.
-- Shrink your lawn. A smaller lawn means more space for flowers that you can cut and give away as gifts, instead of buying trinkets and bottles of wine. It also means less space that uses up water, fertilizer and mowing time.
-- Share big tools, like the gas-powered tiller and the electric trimmer, with your neighbors.
-- Eat more plant parts. Greens from turnips, radishes and garlic are all delicious and nutritious. So, as more people are discovering, are dandelion greens.
-- Freeze as much as possible while it's fresh. Even if you don't grow them yourself, you can buy berries cheap when berries are in season, corn when corn is in season.
-- Be lazy. Leave pulled weeds and spent vegetable plants in the garden at the end of the summer. Turn them into the soil sometime during the fall. Another $4 bag of soil enrichment you don't have to buy.
(editing by Gunna Dickson)